Skip to main content

Collection Sigmund Freud Papers

Conservation of the Sigmund Freud Papers at the Library of Congress

Preparation of the Sigmund Freud Papers for scanning required the Conservation Division to perform some important, in-depth treatments that provided improved access to information for the researcher. This essay describes the work undertaken by the Library’s conservators on those items identified by them and the Manuscript Division processing team as needing attention beyond what could be provided by archivists and archives technicians preparing the collection and finding aid for digitization.

All items to be digitized underwent a number of condition assessments that took into account the age of the material and its extensive handling before and after its donation to the Library of Congress. Separated from the collection and delivered to the conservation lab were items at particular risk from the further manipulation that would be necessary during the scanning process. Use of overhead cameras with no impact on the materials from the equipment itself was a provision within the scanning contract, but simply moving some documents from their enclosures to the scan bed posed potential loss and further damage due to their compromised condition. Obscuring elements such as adhesive tape and stray bits of paper or other matter stuck to manuscript content on certain documents also presented obstacles to capturing all the information they contained, and that issue needed to be addressed as well. With years of experience in preparing collections for digitization, the Conservation Division staff assigned to the Freud project employed some innovative and effective ways to improve the materials, not just during the scan process, but as permanent steps toward their preservation into the foreseeable future.

The items selected for conservation treatment represented both print and manuscript materials. Brittle print material was carefully placed in Mylar to avoid further edge losses from handling. On occasion, Freud would tear up his manuscripts, and some of the leaves that represented this tendency received bridge mends to keep the text conjoined but without attempting to mask the intentional damage initially done to them by their author.

Gilt medallions adhered over information underneath

A courtship letter from Martha Freud to her future husband Sigmund, on decorative stationary, featured gilt medallions adhered over information underneath. Scanning this item in its entirety required a careful hinging of the medallions for the scan operator to be able to scan both the medallions in situ as well as the image of the messages underneath once the medallions were lifted back. This item needed special handling assistance from a conservator during the image capture.

The greatest challenges for conservation of the Freud Papers were the letters to Oskar Pfister, which suffered from an abundance of adhesive tape application, on some sheets on both recto and verso. The tape carrier layer was coated with a great deal of yellowing adhesive which over the years spread far beyond the borders of the tape application. This not only darkened and transparentized the paper, making it difficult or impossible to read in those spots, but also caused the letters to stick to adjacent leaf and folder surfaces, causing the letters to tear when someone attempted to remove them or separate them.

Letter to Oskar Pfister before conservation. Letter to Oskar Pfister after conservation.

The black fountain pen ink had to be exhaustively tested, in increasing time increments, in solvents that would not solubilize the ink, yet which would at the same time be effective in washing out the adhesive. Although three solvents were identified that were useful, it was decided that Heptane baths were the best manner to lift the carrier and adhesive residue on the surfaces; this treatment was followed by ethyl acetate baths and suction table localized intervention to decrease the adhesive embedded in the substrates. The accompanying photos show both before and after results of this treatment. Other successes in the treatment were the discovery of a graphite notation which was previously invisible in the stain area, as well as the discovery of a paper fragment from an adjacent leaf which had stuck to another, and which floated off in a solvent bath; returning it to the source sheet made that text more complete. This would have been impossible to identify without treatment.

Conservation Division staff reviewing items.

The Conservation Division was extremely pleased to be a participant in this project, by offering our assistance in making these important documents accessible to students, researchers and historians.

Alan Haley
Kate Morrison Danzis
Conservation Division, Library of Congress, November 2016

 Back to top